If you've purchased a pair of eyeglasses lately, you probably paid plenty. The cost of today’s frames, lens materials, and coatings can add up to hundreds of dollars out of your pocket, even if you have insurance.
But what are your options? Online merchants and discount retailers can save you money, but they may lack the expertise and personalized service needed to handle complicated prescriptions and vision issues.
Before you shop for your next pair of eyeglasses, check out these tips for getting the best value and results.
1. Check your benefits
Review your healthcare and vision insurance and familiarize yourself with the coverage you have, says money-saving expert Leah Ingram, author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less.
Like health insurance, your policy may have in-network providers that are covered at a greater rate than those not in your network. If you have a flexible spending account (FSA) through your workplace, you can use the money set aside in it for eye examinations and eyeglasses, according to the Internal Revenue Service. These benefits apply wherever you buy your glasses, whether at your local optician or big-box store.
If you're on Medicare, coverage is limited: It pays for eyeglasses or contact lenses only if you need vision correction after cataract surgery.
2. Prioritize lenses
One of the most important components of your eyeglasses is the prescription lenses, says Steve Kodey, senior director of industry research for the Vision Council, an optical trade organization that educates the public about eye health and eyewear.
You may need single-focus lenses—such as reading glasses—or bifocal, progressive, or other multifocal lenses that correct vision for multiple purposes. You can choose from traditional lenses that have a tight optical zone or premium lenses that give you a wider optical zone and better functionality at multiple distances.
Alan Glazier, M.D., an optometrist and founder of Shady Grove Eye and Vision Care in Rockville, Md., says getting accurate lenses requires your optician to make a series of measurements that include:
• Pupillary distance, or PD—the distance between the bridge of the nose and each pupil—which often varies among individuals because most people’s faces aren’t symmetrical. If a lens’s optical center isn’t properly aligned over the pupil, you may experience “prismatic effect,” causing your eyes to work harder.
• Eye size, the width of your nose bridge, and temple length.
In addition, your optician will help you choose the lens design, material, and lens treatments that will meet your vision needs.
“Every pair of glasses is a custom-made item,” Glazier says. Lenses or frames may need to be adjusted for optimal vision, and your eye care provider may recommend lenses or coatings based on your individual vision issues, profession, or lifestyle.
3. Find your frame
When choosing a frame, remember that the designer brands showcased can significantly affect the cost, says optometrist Wendy Josephs, O.D., of Brooklyn, N.Y. “There are stylish frames without fancy brand names that are much more affordable,” she says.
Be frank about your budget. If you have vision insurance, ask to see the frames that are part of your plan.
4. Explore discount options
If you choose to purchase your glasses online, says Kendal Perez, a money-saving expert with CouponSherpa.com, go to the “contact us” section of the eyeglass website and call the toll-free number to ask the provider how it ensures proper fit and adjustments so that the glasses will work well for you.
Ravi Goel, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Regional Eye Associates in Cherry Hill, N.J., says he has seen many patients who have been unable to use their multifocal glasses correctly because they chose a frame that cuts off a critical field of vision.
Sites like Zenni Optical and Warby Parker say they will evaluate your vision needs and make recommendations. Perez saved more than $300 by purchasing her last pair of glasses from an online retailer, who also offered her reimbursement of up to $50 for the additional fitting she had to have locally.
Online retailers, big-box stores, or national chains may have coupon codes that will help you save even more. But Josephs cautions that if you have a complicated prescription that requires additional measurements, online may not be your best choice.
Another option is buying your frames online and getting your lenses filled locally. Opticians at big-box stores like Costco (where you have to be a member) and Walmart will accept frames purchased elsewhere, fill them for a modest fee, and provide adjustments.
It’s a model that works: most people were “highly satisfied” with glasses purchased from big-box stores, according to a 2012 Consumer Reports survey of its readers.
Federal rules give you the legal right to a copy of your prescription if you want to explore choices other than your optometrist’s offerings. If you forget to ask for it after your exam, you can call your doctor’s office and ask that a copy of your eyeglass prescription be faxed to where you want your glasses to be made. You may also be able to bargain to get a better price if you’ve set your heart on a particular pair of frames in your doctor’s office.
The bottom line? Shop around—you never know which option is going to deliver the best value for your money.
Finding financial help
If you can’t afford vision care or glasses, look into these organizations or programs:
• EyeCare America. Part of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s foundation, Eyecare America provides eligible seniors with free eye exams and glaucoma testing.
• Vision USA. This program provides free eye exams to low-income people in the United States.